The light response of the lateral eye of the horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, increases at night, while the frequency of spontaneous discrete fluctuations of its photoreceptor membrane potential (quantum bumps) decreases. These changes are controlled by a circadian clock in the brain, which transmits activity to the eye via efferent optic nerve fibers (Barlow, R. B., S. J. Bolanski, and M. L Brachman. 1977. Science. 197:86-89). Here we report the results of experiments in which we recorded from single Limulus photoreceptors in vivo for several days and studied in detail changes in their physiological and membrane properties. We found that: (a) The shape of (voltage) quantum bumps changes with the time of day. At night, spontaneous bumps and bumps evoked by dim light are prolonged. The return of the membrane potential to its resting level is delayed, but the rise time of the bump is unaffected. On average, the area under a bump is 2.4 times greater at night than during the day. (b) The rate of spontaneous bumps decreases at night by roughly a factor of 3, but their amplitude distribution remains unchanged. (c) The resting potential and resistance of the photoreceptor membrane do not change with the time of day. (d) the relationship between injected current and impulse rate of the second order neuron, the eccentric cell, also remains unchanged with the time of day. Thus the efferent input from the brain to the retina modulates some of the membrane properties of photoreceptor cells. Our findings suggest that the efferent input acts on ionic channels in the membrane to increase the sensitivity of the photoreceptor to light.

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